2. Twain, 6. Beauvoir
Whitman’s open road was beautiful because it was open to anybody—it led forwards, onwards, away, and anywhere: as long as you were moving, you were good, because to be going, was to be holy, in a sense. The road does not discriminate and neither, I have been led to understand, does the American frontier. That idea always seemed to me a fundamental aspect of the American dream. However, in this chapter of Twain’s book, we are presented with quite a different sense of what it means to be an American frontier man. Twain himself is very much on the outside of this prototype, as all the chapters in his book are structured with him mostly being the observer of all these different customs and frontier life routines. But what, then, is the exact differentiation between a Forty-Niner and an emigrant? How does one give oneself away as an emigrant, or, on the other hand, pass for a Mormon or pioneer? I am not sure that Twain ever totally solves this mystery himself, but he seems to poke a bit of fun at this distinction at the end of this chapter.
As they leave Salt Lake City and continue on in their journey, he says that “And it was comfort in those succeeding days to sit up and contemplate the majestic panorama of mountains and valleys spread out below us and eat ham and hard boiled eggs while our spiritual natures reveled alternately in rainbows, thunderstorms, and peerless sunsets . . . .Ham and eggs—and after all these, a pipe—an old, rank, delicious pipe, ham and eggs and scenery, a ‘down grade,’ a flying coach, a fragrant pipe and a contented heart—these make happiness. It is what all the ages have struggled for.” In this moment at the end of this chapter, it seems to me as though Twain is already aware of the contradiction arising in the frontier-life “elitism” he points out, and mocks it with a simple assertion that Whitman himself would probably agree with: what all of these pioneers have headed west for, is the same things—food, a pipe, natural revelations, and a contented heart. What else could one want, out there? We have found, perhaps, what “all the ages” have strived for, in our journey to the edge of the continent.
Authenticity and legitimacy are perfect themes to examine within Simone de Beauvoir's America Day By Day, especially in the context of New York City. I'm sure, as students at NYU, you can all imagine why.
"He tells me, 'In Europe, students are intellectuals, but not here at home.'" Romanticization of Europe and Europeans by Americans is nothing new. I think it must go back to the ideals of the frontier: a place we have never known, a place we associate with freedom. Traveling through America from the point of view of a European creates a fascinating narrative no matter what. It seems when it comes to America versus Europe, differences are always emphasized, and similarities brushed off. I'd venture to say one constantly is thriving off the other. The emphasized contrast makes both seem more romantic than either truly are. What is the "authentic" America? Simone de Beauvoir, like so many before and after her, attempts to find this out.
An amusing scene (amusing in its story, and amusing that it was particularly assigned to read) was the one in which she tries to get high smoking weed, but somehow fails. Drug culture is always a unique lens to look at a city under: was NYC defined by drugs? Perhaps, by people who used drugs? I wonder if because she was so intensely seeking this high, happy experience with the marijuana, that it prevented her from "giving herself over" to the high. Anyone who has done any drugs knows that over-thinking it can dilute the strongest of drugs. Anyway, I digress.
The authentic American, and authentic New Yorker is still something we grapple with today. We are an entitled nation that forgets our past--indeed, we argue and argue about who deserves to be an American, while disregarding how we forced the only real native Americans onto reservations (after, of course, killing the vast majority of them in an unacknowledged genocide). When it comes to the prestige of cities like New York, there is always that fight for the authentic. The foreigners want to see the authentic, and the residents want to prove their authenticity. You'll never see someone fighting over being an authentic or "real" Glendale-ian (California reference), but everyone and their mother is going to try to claim the Hollywood in them. Authenticity only matters when that form of authenticity is coveted. We only claim the parts of our identities we believe will benefit us in the world.
This, however, contrasts with what de Beauvoir's theory was on every American thinking their hometown was the most perfect place on earth. I'm not sure how much I can get behind that statement. Perhaps, there is some truth: for example, many align with "I can insult xyz place, but no one else can." I think everyone does, in fact, hold pride for their hometown.
Simone de Beauvoir's journaling of her experiences in New York City continuously ravels around the theme of authenticity, which holds particular resonance when coming from someone outside of that sphere of American authenticity. On a final note, in the beginning of her journaling, when she speaks about Harlem and her acquaintances reactions to it, I couldn't help but think of "dark tourism." The practice of white, privileged folks going into "lower class" areas to experience "authentic" city life: almost in an act of schadenfreude. There is a lot to be said on when traveling becomes exploitative in its means. That line and its gray areas is for another discussion, though.
In America Day by Day, Simone de Beauvoir starts off discussing how excited she is to travel the U.S., specifically New York. She describes her first drive through the city as marked by silence and though this might just be due in part to the sequence of lights as she mentions, it offers a bit of peace and order in her moment. It's a unique position to take or perhaps a moment to have as most new visitors are left with the impression that NYC is chaotic and constantly audible-- thus "the city that never sleeps." However, I've always had a strange relationship with that what NYC is made out to be and what it really is. As being born and raised in one of the 'outer-boroughs,' I've always been a New Yorker, geographically speaking, but there was always a bubble surrounding Manhattan. So while I still had my first time in the city (as in Manhattan) experience, it's always been so close, accessible, and eventually, very familiar. Anyway, the point is-- I believe the moment of silence and peace in the city that de Beauvoir experiences isn't really unusual at all as I've begun to know the city better. And I've seen this manifest in a number of ways from taking a ferry and walking around the edges of Manhattan to taking a cab through the city and back to Brooklyn as time lessens and you pause with whatever conversation you may be having. Perhaps the silence is something noteworthy because it's unexpected.
In any case, she also discusses trying to find the real New Yorkers. This has always been something that interests me because I find that it is very difficult to pinpoint. The search for authenticity isn't something just concerns those passing by and visitors but the locals as well and at times we all play these roles. How long does it take you to become one of the locals, if you ever do? As petty as this is going to sound, I won't ever forget this one moment when I on a tour for NYU and while in Bobst, a girl walked by and while on her phone, said something along the lines of "Ugh, there are just so many tourists visiting here." Now, being from here, I could clearly tell by her accent that wasn't from here and likely from further West (although I could be wrong about all of that). I had this visceral reaction and wanted to shout back "Hey, I'm not a tourist, I'm from here, you only moved here for school, you impostor!" Although, why should I care-- for one, I will likely never see her again and two, I'm not even from Manhattan, so maybe she's even a little bit right. There is a certain of way of acting that can help you integrate a little bit better. For a reason that may not seem clear, I think this all goes back to this search for authenticity, that you want to act, go to the same neighborhoods/bars/restaurants, be seen at the right places, as the locals do. When you want to separate yourself from the tourists that don't care if they are labeled as such, even picking where to eat quickly becomes a self-conscious act. And what is so funny about this all is that the city is so big that people will barely notice you, you can remain anonymous fairly easily. While you may be briefly acknowledged walking by, as de Beauvoir states, "no one here is concerned with my presence." All this is to say is that I think that the search for authenticity is more than just a way of fitting in but there is larger, looming search for the truth that lingers around travel.
De Beauvoir writes beautiful prose, prose so beautiful it seems as though she is living in another world where everything looks perfect and there are no dull moments: in effect, she writes as though she herself is starring in her own movie. Perhaps that is the best place to explore her profuse mentions of movies throughout the sections we read of "America Day by Day". De Beauvoir seems to want her experience in New York to be as much like a movie as possible, she even notes how on her first day in the city she takes a boat to the Statue of Liberty but, “I don’t get out at the little island that looks like a small fort. I just want to see a view of the Battery as I’ve so often seen it in the movies. I do see it.” (23) She is at once attempting to relive scenes from movies she’s seen while also now integrating those scenes into her own history. Essentially it seems as though she wants to claim those scenes for herself, take them out of the movie and transplant them into her own personal history.
So much of her narrative is littered with short references to movies such as when she discusses the doorbells of America versus the doorbells of France. She is amazed to find these different, flat doorbells that she’s seen in the movies suddenly in front her live and in person, she is so surprised that she records that this sensation in interesting because, “what disconcerts me is that those movie sets that I’d never really believed in are suddenly real.” (26)
As I was reading the book and later reflecting on it and thinking about her movie references I was initially annoyed and found them to be almost too perfect, saccharine in a sense. However, when I think back to my travels, especially through Europe, I suddenly think I see why Simone De Beauvoir includes these in her writing. It is because movies do offer the viewer an escape to the “perfect” travel. Growing up in the ‘90’s nearly every year the Olsen Twins would release a movie that featured the two impossibly perfect main characters (the twins) whisked away to an exotic location (Paris, Sydney, London etc) where they would have a blast, magically find boyfriends, and always have a shopping trip montage that looked much better than any trip to the mall has ever looked in real life. These trips that the Olsen twins went on gave me (and I imagine an entire generation of young girls) an imaginary perfection standard to hold up to all future travel. Perhaps that is what we all do when we travel, try to claim the majestic travel in movies as our own, and Simone de Beauvoir is just fearless enough to record this experience and not be embarrassed by it.
You arrive at your destination. Each step peels away the imagined city in your mind. The city you had fabricated from the faint and subconscious images of memories past is quickly replaced with the city you had been trying to construct. Preconceptions melt away as you take your place as a "ghost" in your new city. You feel as though you stand out like a sore thumb, and you may, but few notice.
While reading this piece, I could not help but relate to my own personal experiences. My trip to Tokyo, Japan over the past summer, as well as my upcoming semester abroad in Paris and other travels, have given me first hand experience with the sensation and process of anticipation, as well as the reality of stepping foot in a personally unknown world. Beauvoir's concept of a "borrowed presence" struck a chord with me.
Tokyo was a city entirely unlike my wildest preconceptions. My imagination and curiosity combined to generate countless images of what it would be like based on images and ideas ingrained into my mind by my years of infatuation with all that is Japan. Having never been to Tokyo, nor any Asian country for that matter, every moment of wandering painted over the streets in my mind. It was even better than I had imagined.
Wandering through the streets unlike any I had ever laid eyes before, I came to realize that these great cities of the world wait for no one. Tokyo is a beehive of a city; men and women of largely homogenous garb swarm the city every morning and evening in orderly waves. Conflicting feelings arise when the hyper-traditionalist culture reveals itself in skewed gender roles, work environments, and general custom. I still could not help but fall wildly in love with Tokyo.
In reverse to Beauvoir's journey, I will be departing New York City in early January of 2013 for a four month stint in Paris during which time I anticipate doing a great deal of traveling throughout Europe. Many of Beauvoir's more tame encounters provide a great deal of insight into the kind of feelings such immersive travel can reveal. Contradictory feelings abound in worlds untraveled as the complexities of foreign cultures are far too vast to accept in snap judgement. It takes time to digest the subtleties and differences of other cultures.
As I approach my departure for Paris, I cannot help but feel like Simone de Beauvoir already in her seat on the plane. The sense of imminent change spurs the mind and the nerves into a frenzy of anticipation and nervous excitement. Having spent a year studying French culinary techniques as well as having visited Paris previously, my preconceptions, like Beauvoir's, will undoubtedly impact my experience of the city. Romantic images of Paris linger incessantly in my mind. But preconceptions are meant to be broken, or at least altered, as experience reveals reality.
(The photograph associated with this blog post is a picture I took in a small town in the mountains of Japan...about three hours outside of Tokyo by train.)
Moreover, with the point comes the traveling component because touching on people with Beauvoir's first part of her journey leads to a theme of the people one meets along the road. Whether it is Kerouac's romanticized version of the road trip or Beauvoir's account of the journey, it is the people that seem to be at the heart of the quintessential road trip including those that one travels with but more so those that one meets along the way regardless of the backdrop or the persona of the individual who is traveling. The people that one meets influences how the individual grows or perceives the rest of the world thereafter. For instance, for Beauvoir, her experiences shape her persona as a sophisticate, philosopher, and essentially an intellectual while for Kerouac the people that he meets along the way and travels with shapes how he perceives the world with a more realistic scope that isn't so idealized.
I am in love with the city of New York. I think there is something magical and clandestine about the nature of New York. I was shocked by the first passage Beauvoir describes of her drive through New York because of the silence. I am not quite sure I have ever experienced New York in complete silence. Honking, people and noise seem to be part of the regular New York experience therefore, I was a bit shocked. But, as stated in class, perhaps she was in a cab with the windows up driving down an avenue where there was hardly any traffic. That motion, that movement can be so peaceful sometimes. It is something very few are able to experience but once you live in New York for some time you learn to appreciate it.
Her fascination and obsession with New York is obvious and I get it. I have lived in Washington D.C. and now in New York and having visited plenty of cities yet, I still, can safely say that there is nowhere like New York. There is no city so alive, so wonderful, and as mesmerizing as New York. Also, I believe that once you live in New York and you fall in love with New York you gain a sense of independence that is unique. When she is told not to walk through Harlem, she does so without questioning. These moments, these decisions that she makes are reflective of a true New Yorker. She becomes a native in the weeks she lives and experiences New York and her writing displays this. Especially her negative feelings towards almost every other city she visits. Anyways, now that you know how much I love New York, I will move on to other interesting ideas that stand out to me throughout Simone's writing.
One of my favorite parts was when Simone was describing college students here in America. Students here in America prefer to be considered "Gentlemen" over "Scholars" because, of course, what do American students care most about? Being stupid and partying. I thought this was a very interesting section of her writing because it displays the stereotype most people have of American students in college. All we care about is partying, socializing and last, and most definitely least, studying. It's cool to get a C according to the Gentlemen because an A makes you look terrible. Ironically, the kids on scholarships and the international students manage to do well and even do the homework for other students. Are the stereotypes we hate actually true? I think her depiction of students is appropriate for the time and today, things are different… sort of.
Simone also informs us that she learned about America through books and movies. The section described above seems out of a movie. It reminded me of old college films like Animal House, where being in a fraternity matters more than working at getting good grades. It seems as if Simone has a bit of a tainted image of the U.S. and it comes out in her piece. However, the fact she writes about personal experiences she had, it was hard to separate what I believed to be a foreigner's interpretation over her real experiences.
As she stands around on the busy streets of New York City she loses her senses momentarily as “my eyes have no memory; my steps, no plan” and she is “cut off from the past and the future, a pure presence – a presence so pure, so tenuous that is doubts itself” (7). This displacement from her past in Paris and everything that previously grounded her reveals the paradox between the freeing and restraining nature of traveling. At this moment is freed of her past in order to fully exist in the present, but she is also completely displaced and notes how “all the world seems in limbo” (7). As she seemingly floats along in this moment being totally consumed by these foreign and strange sights, there is a real rawness and vulnerability to her identity. The ability to break out of a personal comfort zone not only opens up new possibilities, but also confuses old ones.
As Beauvoir examines her surroundings she makes careful notice of her feelings: “I’m no longer in Paris, but I’m not here either. My presence is a borrowed presence. There is no place for me on these sidewalks… It is a world where I am not: I grasp it in my perfect absence” (7). While there is a sense of desperation and loss in her “borrowed presence” that just resides in a sort of limbo, there is also hope and a sort of empowerment from seeing the world from a whole new vantage point. Her great anticipation of the wonders of New York City as imagined from her thoughtful plane ride over from Paris become muddled with the reality of standing in the middle of New York City and seeing it for herself. When her imagination and expectations mix with the reality of her new surroundings, she becomes consumed by her confusion and adjustment period. The intense consciousness that pervades over the entire novel looks deep into Beauvoir’s mind and reveals the importance of anonymity and transience on the road. While the traveler sets out usually with some hope of finding something new about themselves and the world around them, they have to endure the overwhelming strangeness and sense of “traveling incognito, like a phantom” unsure of the end result (7).
I saw New York for the first time when I was eighteen. I had been accepted to NYU and really had no idea why I applied to the school in the first place. It was certainly the furthest distance-wise from my home in Florida and also the most distinctive school on my list of options, mostly composed of small liberal arts schools in the South. I knew very little about New York City outside of what I had read in books or seen in movies—and to move here would be acting on a lofty dream that I had never given much serious thought.
I remember my mother reluctantly handing me the oversized acceptance letter and saying, “that’s nice, but you’re not going.” She was joking, of course, but equally terrified as I was by the distance between Florida and New York, both geographically and in ways of life. I arrived in the city expecting many of the clichés that Beauvoir describes to unfold in front of me. And in many ways, these descriptions had been true. The lights overwhelmed me, the pace of the people, the shear amount of them; everything seemed to exist in the superabundance that Beauvoir described. Though I didn’t grow up in a small town, New York seemed to offer something completely different to me than any other city I had visited before. I related to Beauvoir’s reactions to the various neighborhoods and the city’s vastness and diversity. In America Day by Day, Beauvoir brings these emotions that we’ve all encountered back to life. As she journeys through different neighborhoods of New York, I was reminded of seeing these differences from block to block for the first time, and digesting their distinctness from each other. Each neighborhood seemed at first to offer a whole new world and some places in the city immediately feel like home. Despite her fascination, however, the city still seems distant to her, and she struggles to “break through the glass wall” (15).
Her journey through the rest of the country reflects a similar disillusionment as she experiences in New York. The country is seriously stratified, especially in regards to race, and these issues become increasingly apparent as she travels outside of New York, which has always been good at distracting tourists from the harsh realities that exists within the city. It is interesting to consider what differences might be experienced if a similar journey were to take place today, especially from the perspective of someone who is foreign to the United States. Would they still notice such social stratification? How far have we come in these regions of the country? Has much really changed?
At the outset, her conclusion that the men at the esteemed universities would rather be "gentleman" than "scholars" seems odd. But looking at the time period in which Beauvoir was in America, these values start to make sense. America was fiercely promoting its exceptionalism and attempting to legitimize its role as the better world power - contrary to the commies in Russia. The internal conflict men experienced at universities was inevitably won out, most of the time, by the "gentleman" value rather than the intellectual value because American togetherness was the core value behind the political rhetoric of the time. These polarizations between being a gentleman and being an intellectual also make sense in terms of the "Eastern" U.S. vs. "Western" U.S. dichotomy - men from the East are intellectuals, men from the west are manly men who create their own destiny. There was so much more allure to being this kind of gentleman. It is also, psychologically, a rejection of their reality - they weren't really creating their own destinies, because they were only going through the necessary traditions and processes in order to be in charge of daddy's business.
Beauvoir's insights in this section also brought to mind Marxian critiques of capitalism. At first I tried to reject this association, but given the fact that Beauvoir is in the middle of a country whose mandate is to reject Marxian ideology, I'm allowing myself to go in that direction. The education system that she describes almost seems like a capitalist economy. Her explanation of the value of the C grade over an A or a B is a prime example. Students of lower status/economic worth actually wanted to get the best grades and did more work than there more privileged counterparts. Come finals time, those students that were privileged effectively exploited the labor of those not in their shoes, and literally bought grades from them. Not only that, but the actual value of the grade is not based on how much work it would take to achieve (an A takes more work, obviously than a C) - a C is valued higher, despite the fact that it takes less work to achieve (less labor), simply because of its cultural value and significance. But of course, the underprivileged student needs to do all the work to be able to determine how much work needs to be done to net a certain grade.
All of this, granted, makes the privileged kids of America look pretty bad. But Beauvoir does do them justice in crediting their behavior as an obvious reaction to American "defeatism." This, above all, was the takeaway for me, and it translates into both contemporary sentiments at the time she was writing and with sentiments in America today. A lot of people, she comments, thought that war in and of itself was bad, but didn't really feel like stopping it - not because they didn't believe it was bad, but because they didn't think they had the means to do so. She posits that "they are caught in a social machine from which it would take real heroism to free themselves." This quote is more in reference to inability to choose ones path, but it necessarily correlates into the broader idea that nothing happening in America could be changed or stopped. The entrenchment of nepotism and the lack of one's ability to be upwardly mobile, or at least the increasing difficulty to do so, were realizations that students didn't want to deal with. What makes these realizations even more defeating is the fact that American identity uses upward mobility as one of its core tenants - without it, who are we?
Her feeling of isolation and disorientation is something a lot of foreigners living in new countries feel. She says, “There is no place for me on these sidewalks. This strange world where I’ve landed by surprise was not waiting for me. It was full without me; it is full without me. It is a world where I am not: I grasp it in my perfect absence. This crowd I’m jostling, I’m not part of it; I feel invisible to every gaze. I am traveling incognito, like a phantom. Will I manage to reincarnate myself?” Her question is especially salient to my experience studying abroad. I think a lot of the expectation that we will change as we live abroad from the semester is rooted in the idea that we are young, dependent, and impressionable. I guess an adult can be all those things too. I went to Paris expecting some sort of change. Advisors and peers told me my relationship to New York and the people in my life will inevitably be different when I return. I kept waiting for the shoe to drop. I suppose I still am.
Certain descriptions of the New York she experienced sounded to me like Paris; restaurants closed on Sunday, seemingly impolite waitresses that rush their customers. I was amused by her description of the hotel lobby. The idea that everything should be accessible, that we can create a mall that offers choices for every desire or need one might have definitely sounds American. One of the great selling points of New York is its walkability, the close proximity of all things commercial to one another. She expands on this idea when she describes the women and the food: “The women surprise me. In their carefully coifed, perfectly waved hair they wear whole flower beds, aviaries. Most of the coats are mink; the intricately draped dresses are sewn with bright spangles and decorated with heavy, unimaginative costume jewelry… In the street, on this winter day, I haven’t seen one woman with flat shoes. None have had the free and sporty look I attribute to American women. All are dressed in silk, not wool; they are covered with feathers violets, flowers, and flounces. There’s too much fnery, too many mirrors and drapes; the food has too many sauces and syrups; everywhere, there’s too much heat. Superabundance too is a curse.” (Beauvoir, 15). It seems that American excess and its reputation for opulence, has been around for a long time. It is worth noting that although Beauvoir is seeing the city as part of a different universe, because it is so different from Europe, her perception of New York is inherently colored by her identity as a Parisian. She acknowledges that a lot of her expectations were not met, stereotypes not situated in her experience of the city, but it doesn’t make her account of New York any more real or truthful, just different. It’s striking to me that a lot of the observations she made about New York in the middle of the twentieth-century, I made about Paris over fifty years later.
“Something is about to happen. You can count the minutes in your life when something happens.” Opens her account of landing, finally, in La Guardia airport (where a plane lands every minute, she reports) It is unclear why, despite fulfillment of assignment, Beauvoir has traveled to the united states. It seems, however, that she, like many before and many since, has come to New York in the hopes of curing a certain pervasive “ennui” (ironic that she is, in fact, French.) Nothing is happening for her in Paris, and so she is desperate to “become a different me.” Eager for this next phase in her life, she claims to have already done so on the plane” “The smooth flight is already a promise: I’ve already escaped myself.”
And yet with all of this anticipation, she is immediately struck by the dull inevitability of day to day life: “The Christmas trees and luminous fountains are far away. I will not catch another glimpse of that festive face; it doesn’t shine for those who bear down on the land with all their human weight.” Poetically put, she notes that the lights seen from above, flying over the city, are not the lights of walking the streets—though she does eventually find a pleasure in the mundanity. She cannot, for example, stand to be properly entertained: “I love the film [In this case, Olivier’s Henry V] but when I leave the movie house, I feel unsatisfied. Those colored images didn’t speak to me of America. Looking at them, I forgot New York. This evening, more than any evening, I would like to grasp it—woth my hands, my eyes, my mouth. I don’t know how but I will grasp it. I walk in the same streets where I walked like a ghost Saturday night.”
While she does not deny that, say, Olivier’s masterful performance is a thing to be treasured, that the consumption of art in New York is as easy as anything else and this in and of itself is worth being appreciated, she would much rather take in the mundane—the things that to her speak directly to the city. The drugstore breakfast, the consumption of whiskey, even the street lights and the same paths that she’s already walked upon.
“There are a thousand possibilities, but they’re all the same.” She remarks, not depressingly. It is this endlessness that she loves about New York, which makes her seek out nothing remarkable in particular.
I fell in love with Simone de Beauvoir's honest, refreshing depiction of exploring a new country for the first time. It was like Douglas Brinkley says in the foreward: compared to On the Road, America Day by Day "comes to the reader like a dusty bottle of vintage French cognac, asking only to be uncorked."
Although the book is about America, I think it's less about America (which is so vast and diverse) but more about the feeling of being in a new place, a foreign place, where you think you don't belong, and finding your identity. The first part of the book, where she explores New York City, so closely captured my feelings when I went to Paris for the first time.
I did a 6 week study abroad program in Paris two summers ago. I was on the plane, and just like de Beauvoir, I was brimming with excitement. And it was very much like she says, "I feel I'm leaving my life behind. I don't know if it will be through anger or hope, but something is going to be revealed - a world so full, so rich, and so unexpected that I'll have the extraordinary adventure of becoming a different me."
Unfortunately for me, I became disenchanted with Paris, it didn't reveal to me what I had hoped. The experience was entirely different, and rather disappointing. Granted, I had already been in Europe for seven weeks when I took that flight to Paris, and I was coming from Berlin. I was already used to being in cultures that didn't speak English, where the currency was hard to wrap your head around, all the basic struggles you feel when traveling in a foreign country for the first time that de Beauvoir talks about in the book.
But I did have very similar experiences to her. I wanted to find the real Paris, I wanted to meet Parisians, as she says about New York, I felt about Paris, "I would like to grasp it - with my hands, my eyes, my mouth." I couldn't do it. I never could. This past summer, coming back to Paris, I think I was able to find the real Paris much more easily. There is something about visiting a place for the first time, having such incredibly strong hopes and expectations, and being let down.
On January 30th de Beauvoir goes to see three American films, and after each one, she is disapointed. I saw Midnight in Paris, in Paris. That was a strange experience, because what I saw on the screen was not what I saw when I walked out of the theater. For maybe a half an hour after I saw the film, I had fallen in love with Paris again, was determined to see it as Owen Wilson's character saw it, beautiful and magical. But as I walked through the streets back to my dorm, through the Latin Quarter filled with tacky little cheap food storefronts and bars, I lost the feeling.
I think her comment in that same section, "If America were far away, perhaps the taste of scotch would restore my memory in one fell swoop. Here it's powerless; how can I get back something I've never found," is very important. Whenever I've traveled somewhere for the first time, there's something I search for, something I try to grab hold of with both hands, with my mouth, with my eyes, but I can't, because I don't know what it is.
Ps - check out the Paris vs. NYC blog for more awesome images: http://parisvsnyc.blogspot.com/
What is even more interesting is that the students Beauvoir meets are dissatisfied with democracy and the choices their governmet has been making, yet they do nothing about it. The American students seem to have good reasons for losing faith in democracy because their professors can be fired for teaching liberal, anti-capitalist views. However, the Oberlin students excuses for avoiding these difficult conversations are as unconvincing as they are today. Yes, there are problems with the American government, and no, they cannot simply be solved by talking about them, but completely ignoring them is a sure-fire way to lead the continuation of these problems.
Beauvoir seems most upset by the apathy she encounters at Oberlin. "What is most striking to me, and most discouraging, is that they are so apathetic while being neither blind nor unconscious. They know and deplore the opression of thirteen million blacks, the terrible poverty of the South, the almost equally desperate poverty that pollutes the big cities. They witness the rise, more ominous every day, of racism and reactionary attitudes- the birth of a kind of fascism. They know that their country is responsible for the world's future. But they themselves don't feel responsible for anything, because they don't think they can do anything in this world," (91). What is interesting about Oberlin college is it clearly has liberal, progressive, and humanitarian views, but as Beauvoir points out they are not doing anything to change the reality of the United States. Another reason that Beauvoir detests the students apathy is because she decribes the severe corruption in American politics, even describing it as the beginning of fascism, which should make anyone jump.
Beauvoir goes on to make an even bolder assertion when trying to understand the reason for the students' apathy. "In America, the individual is nothing." The students believe they cannot make a change by themselves, so why bother? This eerily reminded me of why so many people do not take action today to change something in their society such as politics, racism, or poverty. Beauvoir believes this is an American problem that is based on our individualism and therefore out lack of "collective spirit." I think there truth in Beauvoir's statement and that Americans emphasis on the individual and the uniqueness of each person leads to a self-centered population that does not work together or does not care to help the collective group, but is instead only concerned with their own success. On the other hand, its also an unfair generalization because there are so many Americans who work to help others and adamantly fight for a cause. It was surprising that Beauvoir did not find these people at Oberlin College because it is a very politically active and liberal school. Also, Beauvoir did not stay their very long and perhaps she was just having conversations with apathetic people that were not representitive of Oberlin College let alone the American public.
While I have mixed feelings about Beauvoir's generalizations about Americans, particularly college students, as a college student, I have witnessed this apathy and I am not completely innocent myself at times. It is easy to get caught up in school work and forget there are much larger issues affecting the world. Hopefully, college adminstrators will find effective ways to address student apathy towards larger American issues and encourage students to become involved with social change. Another option is that students may decide to look at the problematic and selfish nature of their apathy and decide to adopt a more compassionate perspective.
What I find I like most about Beauvoir is her sense of wonder. She seems to perfectly embody the spirit of a true traveler, equipped with her fair share of biases, but excited to be surprised and eager to find the true spirit of a city.
From the outset of her journey, Beauvoir demonstrates a resolute desire to take in all of America that she can. Though her intellectual savvy finds no shortage of political and social dilemmas and hypocrisies to critique, she nevertheless displays a girl-like innocence and excitement as the New York she only saw in movies comes to life before her eyes. After giving a lecture the night of one of her first days in New York, a professor "asks [Beauvoir] to 'promise' to write nothing about America: it's such a difficult, complex country...America is so vast that nothing anyone can say about it is true" (17). Though Beauvoir obviously denies this promise, the general sentiment of the request is preserved as she goes about her writing in a way that is quite fair and honest rather than decidedly critical or doubtful, as seemed to be the case in the excerpt from Tocqueville's Democracy in America that we read earlier in the semester. Beauvoir demonstrates great poise as she considers her relationship with New York and the cities that hover in her future. She writes, "I still have nothing to say; I can only listen. But I think that America is a world, and that you can no more accept or reject a world than you can accept or reject the world. It's a matter of choosing your friends and enemies, of asserting your projects and your singular revolts...I know very well that every hatred will be the inverse of a love, every love the inverse of a hatred" (17-8). Here, Beauvoir acknowledges the professor's request to a degree in that she understands her place in a new world such as New York: it is unfamiliar, and it will take time before she herself has experiences significant enough and real enough to take a break from listening in order to respond.
To acquire the experience necessary to generate a worthwhile response, Beauvoir must first overcome her touristic distance and see New York as it is. "When I'm with French people, I sense the same disappointment I felt when I was with my parents during my childhood, that nothing was completely real. There was a glass wall between things and me...I want to break through the glass wall" (15). To break through the glass wall remains Beauvoir's goal throughout her travels, and I think she does it with quite some success:
In a later excerpt, Beauvoir provides a existentialist take on the experience of travel. She writes: "The plenitude I dream of, which would take me out of myself, will never be more than a phantom. I will never be promised anything but myself, and this is nothing if I make nothing of myself. The night is merely a setting; if I try to seize it, to make it the substance of the moments I'm living, it dissolves in my hands. Something has to happen to me-something real-and the rest will follow in abundance" (72). While more complicated, this passage echoes the passage cited above from page 17. In both she seems to determine that she must remain decidedly open in order for something real to happen. And once that real thing happens, she will be initiated, and hopefully more real things will follow. And only then, after listening, has she the capabilities by which to speak. An embodiment of this circumstance would be the night she first met Nelson Algren. She recalls a certain comfort in being vulnerable to whatever Algren decided they would do that night. Without Algren, she "would have known nothing of Chicago except...a deceptively opulent and orderly facade" (103).